The past is now haunting the present

Dear Editor,

I write in relation to the Stabroek News article of November 8, 2012 captioned ‘Rohee’s “no confidence” vote unenforceable.‘ The article states that Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr Raphael Trotman, has been advised by a “senior legal practitioner” that “President Donald Ramotar is not bound by the passage of the motion of no confidence against Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee” and that “Rohee can continue to perform his functions as the motion does not bind either the minister or the Prime Minister to obey it.”

To many, this legal opinion is not a surprise. The present constitution, implemented in 1980 and often referred to as “the Burnham constitution,” is a hybrid of the British and the American models and a product of some of the most brilliant legal minds in the country at that time, including Mr Burnham, himself a Guyana Scholar and brilliant lawyer. This constitution, which replaced the one in place for Guyana’s Independence in 1966, was designed to give absolute powers to the President and curtail the authority of the National Assembly. Interestingly, the legal opinion notes that “in other jurisdictions he [Rohee] would have been forced by convention to resign as a Minister.”

Enforcement of this legal opinion by the Speaker has now created a furore with the opposition members of both APNU and AFC in a rebellious mood; the sitting of the National Assembly had to be adjourned prematurely to November 22, and once again the country is in a state of uncertainty and distress. The irony of the situation is that the PNC, the major constituent of APNU, the staunch opponent of the Speaker’s ruling, was the party that voted in the current constitution under which Minister Rohee cannot be forced to resign, despite the passing of the ‘no confidence’ motion against him.

As I look at the political situation in Guyana, I am reminded of the book titled For the Love of my Name by Trinidad-born writer, Lakshmi Persaud. In his review of this book, John Mair wrote “it fictionalises and satirises the Burnham years very elegantly. Guyana is thinly disguised as an island called Maya and LFS as a dictator called Augustus Devonish… Her research has been thorough and wide, her contacts drawn from all sides of the Guyana divide. High, low, black, brown, yellow, white.

“ What I find extremely interesting and relevant are the reflections of the character, President Augustus Devonish, as he nears his end, in indicting the many who supported him in his quest for absolute control. Of the Western powers he observes “I was perceived by the Western democracies (no mean feat on my part) as a bulwark against Emmanuel Potaro and communism. When one is skilled, the misconceptions and exaggerated fears of the powerful can be harnessed to pull one’s own cart.” Regarding the neighbouring islands, he questions, “Why should the democracies of this Maritime Region, knowing that I was disenfranchising more than half the citizens of Maya through ballot-rigging, choose to look the other way?”

Guyanese and West Indian academics have generally shunned any major critical review of the Burnham years. However, Lakshmi Persaud’s fictionalized history is very telling and a few more excerpts are worth quoting. In relation to the region’s academics, Augustus Devonish notes “These are a group of men and women who speak continually of academic independence and integrity, yet found it all too easy to keep silent when I had to do things which, let us say, brought real politik into conflict with the niceties of human rights… I marvel at these comrades amoebic flexibility.” Regarding his supporters, Devonish reveals, “My supporters on every rung of the ladder are happy when I make space for them to climb upwards, by facilitating the departure of others.”

In stressing the support he received over the years, Devonish notes, “do not for a moment think I was alone in my pursuits. Sportsmen, literary and other professional men and women from within and without Maya came to my assistance. A stream of learned men knocked at my door to support the direction I had taken. Such a wide personal support from the intelligentsia gave me the assurance and hand I needed when, at times, in the privacy of my study, I would reflect on the path along which I had taken Maya and wondered and wondered.”

I do not support the absolute power of the President under the constitution. Regrettably, the past is now haunting the present and, to many, Lakshmi Persaud’s fiction may be right on the mark, making it difficult for the opposition parties to gain support for change.

Yet, it is disappointing that since the last election, the opposition parties have not made even a token move in parliament to change the constitution.

Yours faithfully,
Harry Hergash

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